Ask the Experts: James Rice on undergrad research
Posted: July 01, 2010
LEWISBURG, Pa. — James Rice, associate provost and dean of graduate studies, talks about undergraduate research at Bucknell University, the skills that students gain from the experience and the depth and breadth of the summer research program. || Ask the Experts archive
Q: Why is undergraduate research important at Bucknell?
A: Undergraduate research is important for institutions like Bucknell because the students we seek to attract expect selective liberal arts institutions like ours to offer opportunities for one-on-one collaborative experiences with faculty. We have traditionally been stronger than a lot of the institutions we compete with in offering laboratory and other research opportunities that are truly substantive, almost graduate-level experiences. An unusually high percentage of what our faculty and students do together produces peer-reviewed published work.
This does a couple of things. One, it adds value to what the undergraduate experience is in the sense that the smaller classes and these collaborative moments are a unique opportunity compared to what an undergraduate might experience at a land-grant institution. Second, it exposes them to the life of the mind and, more specifically, the conventions of professional work within an academic discipline.
Q: How many students are involved in summer research and what skills do they acquire?
A: We have between 150 and 200 students each summer involved in research projects. About half of them come from a program we fund through the operating budget called the Program for Undergraduate Research. It's competitive. Students apply, and it is open to any student in any discipline. The other projects are typically independently funded through faculty grants and special departmental programs. They, too, are across all the disciplines. || More about this summer's research projects
The skill sets required for projects vary between the sciences and the humanities and social sciences. A lot of what students would learn in the sciences and engineering directly relates to their own laboratory courses based on the skills they acquire there. In the humanities and social sciences, students tend to pick up new research skills that they often don't encounter in the classroom. If they're doing research in the humanities that's archival or if they're doing research in the social sciences that has them doing oral history fieldwork, they may have had just a taste of that in the classroom.
Q: How did summer research get launched?
A: Until maybe the early 1990s, the summer research you would have found on campus was, as was the case nationally, predominantly in the sciences and a bit in engineering. But in the early '90s, Bucknell received a grant from the Knight Foundation. That was a $250,000 matching grant to start a program in undergraduate research that purposefully extended beyond the sciences.
That had an amazing effect on Bucknell. We suddenly had funds available for all disciplines. That was particularly helpful for younger faculty in the humanities and social sciences who are coming out of their own graduate experiences where their research relationship with a mentor was something they wanted to integrate into their teaching. We've been able to sustain that momentum from the Knight program to the point that we now have a program that is robust in all of the academic divisions.
Q: You've hinted at the diversity of the research. Can you say more?
A: We really have a wide range of project foci and it is reflective, in the most accurate way I know, of the quality of our faculty. Each of the projects supported each summer has a fundamental relationship with the ongoing research interests of our faculty — and that benefits the institution in a variety of short- and long-term ways.
We have students involved in projects from the humanities such as archival research in history. One individual did a project based in Southeast Asia focusing on diaries emerging out of the French colonial experience. And we have a strong tradition in the sciences. DeeAnn Reeder in biology, for example, has an ongoing research interest in bats, both domestically and in Africa; she's involved students in all aspects of her very active research program. We also see a lot of interdisciplinary projects in engineering and the sciences, particularly now with biochemistry, cell biochemistry and bio-engineering. There are two or more faculty doing work that's leading edge in the development of polymers and plastic materials that deliver medicine. It's fascinating how often students become involved in a fundamental way as researchers and that's why you see them appear as co-authors on these papers.
Recently, research has been devoted to more controversial issues like the Marcellus shale. There are humanities-, social science- and science-related aspects of the impact of drilling in this area, and we have active, collaborative projects focusing on all those dimensions of the issue.
Q: How does this effort compare to Bucknell's peer institutions?
A: The one-on-one undergraduate research experience here really mirrors aspects of what a graduate experience is for most people. An important factor in that distinctiveness may be the fact that we have professional programs as well as a strong liberal arts core. We have a very strong engineering college and we have a very strong tradition in the life sciences. When the liberal arts are sharing a campus with a select number of professional programs, the campus ethos tends to be a bit more engaged than one might find elsewhere, and that is a healthy environment for undergraduate research.
Another important factor is, simply, the quality of the interaction between the student and the faculty member. The No. 1 criterion as we vet research proposals for the Program for Undergraduate Research is whether there is evidence that there's a real collaborative relationship. That's a key component of it.
If you look at the possible intellectually "catalytic moments" an undergraduate can have during four years of study, the potential of undergraduate research transforming an individual's life is significant. In my opinion, our mission as a university is to recruit the very best students and put them in front of the very best faculty we can attract and retain here — and then try to find ways of placing before those students and faculty opportunities to explore the life of the mind and intellectual inquiry.
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